Robert McCulloch was a man of uncommon entrepreneurial talent. But even his most ardent backers must have doubted his most famous, and most audacious, venture: transporting a 140-year-old piece of England’s history to Arizona to build a bridge in a place that didn’t need one. Nevertheless, McCulloch pulled it off, and Lake Havasu City’s London Bridge, which opened 50 years ago this month, remains that community’s claim to fame.
The bridge dates to 1831, when it was completed over London’s River Thames to replace a bridge that dated to the 12th century. But in the early 20th century, heavy car traffic caused the bridge to begin sinking, and by the 1960s, the city decided it needed to be removed.
The timing was perfect for McCulloch, who’d found success in the chain-saw industry but also had his hands in oil and gas prospecting, aviation and land development. In 1963, he and developer C.V. Wood founded Lake Havasu City on a swath of barren land along its namesake reservoir on the Colorado River, along Arizona’s “West Coast.” McCulloch opened a chain-saw manufacturing plant in the new community to spur growth, but he also wanted an iconic attraction to encourage people to venture far off Arizona’s major roadways to visit the city.
When London decided to auction off London Bridge instead of demolishing it, McCulloch — or, by some accounts, his real estate agent — saw an opportunity. After winning the auction with a bid of about $2.5 million, he had the disassembled bridge put on a cargo ship and sailed through the Panama Canal to Long Beach, California, before it was trucked to Lake Havasu City. With a new bridge’s load-bearing elements already in place, the original bridge’s stonework was used to clad that structure. The city also dredged a canal under the bridge, turning what had been a peninsula into an island.
The rebuilt, 930-foot London Bridge opened to great fanfare in October 1971, and interest in buying land in Lake Havasu City quickly increased. McCulloch was reported to have recouped all the costs associated with the bridge — which today is billed, somewhat dubiously, as Arizona’s second-largest tourist draw (after the Grand Canyon). Lake Havasu City now boasts a population of more than 50,000 — not including the numerous bats and swallows that nest in and on the bridge. And the chain-saw baron who brought this community to life is memorialized via McCulloch Boulevard, which carries traffic across the bridge.